Grassroots health program goes statewide

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After several years of work in northwestern Vermont, a collaborative aimed at promoting healthy living and reducing obesity is rapidly expanding statewide.

RiseVT has reached 11 new communities this year, including Bennington, via partnerships with hospitals and funding from the state. Another three to five communities are expected to enter the fold by year's end.

The plan is to reach every county in Vermont by the end of 2019. Advocates say the organization's emphasis on programs tailored to each town could help the entire state begin to address worsening problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"What we want to do is intervene and help people embrace healthy lifestyles in the easiest way possible to slow these growth rates," said Marissa Parisi, RiseVT's executive director.

The RiseVT effort began in 2015 in Franklin and Grand Isle counties as a result of a collaboration between Northwestern Medical Center and the state Health Department.

In addition to promoting healthier habits with schools, businesses and municipalities, RiseVT also conducted research: A recent body mass index measurement study of more than 1,700 elementary school children in the two counties showed that 41 percent are either overweight or obese - significantly higher than the national average of 30 percent.

In a presentation Wednesday to the Green Mountain Care Board, RiseVT officials said that study likely is a harbinger of bigger health problems to come. But they also said the data provide a road map for short- and long-term health programs in that region.

"This is a journey — this isn't going to happen overnight," said Jill Berry Bowen, Northwestern Medical's chief executive officer. "But when you see information like this, it is a call to act for all of us."

Bowen, who serves on RiseVT's board, is among a group of health care, business and education administrators who now are taking that "call to act" statewide.

RiseVT has been expanding relatively quickly: The organization hired Parisi, the former director of Hunger Free Vermont, late last year. Under her leadership, RiseVT has been placing program managers in health care facilities across Vermont.

Hospitals are the "backbone organizations" for that expansion, Parisi said. But they're sharing costs with the state's accountable care organization, OneCare Vermont, which assists with local startup money, employs Rise's statewide staff and provides a headquarters in Colchester.

RiseVT has undertaken some statewide initiatives. For instance, promoting summer meal programs for kids and partnering with the state to promote a fishing/outdoors program.

But administrators say the real work is happening on a much smaller, town-by-town scale.

Hospitals that have recently added RiseVT programs include University of Vermont, Copley, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington and Mount Ascutney. Soon to come are Porter and Brattleboro Memorial, Parisi said.

In each region, administrators choose a few municipalities to focus on. In Chittenden County, the target areas are Richmond, Huntington and Bolton; in Copley's service area, the priorities are Morrisville and Johnson.

"Right now, with our new program managers, we're asking what towns need us most and want us most," Parisi said.

RiseVT is not looking to duplicate existing health programs that are working well, she said. "We look at where we can actually provide additional funding or support to amplify those resources even more," she said.

Examples of Rise activities within Copley Hospital's area include attending weekly community events in Morrisville and sizing bike helmets for children. There also will be a "Run for the Heart" next month, and a RiseVT grant is paying for a coach to help train participants for that race.

In Richmond, Rise organized a kids' scavenger hunt for the July Fourth Celebration. The organization also staffs an educational booth at Richmond's weekly farmers' market and is working to promote use of town forests in Huntington and Bolton.

In Bennington, the program has resulted in a bike-loan program, among other activities.

The offerings are diverse by design. The first step for a newly minted RiseVT local program manager "is to meet and listen to communities," Parisi said.

"We are not dictating what communities do. We are in the communities, asking what they need, listening, and believing them," she said. "They know best what their community needs, and we are here to help make that happen."

That doesn't mean, however, that RiseVT doesn't expect to eventually see measurable results. Parisi said administrators will be tracking health surveys and Medicaid data, and Rise also will use a "scientific advisory board" to undertake studies and evaluate the organization's work.

"We're hoping we're going to be able to really see some statewide shifts as RiseVT grows," she said.


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